UUP and SDLP advance North’s politics a few inches forward

Analysis: Unionist conference is the birthplace of a new alternative to ‘Marlene’

 Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt during the party’s annual conference at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt during the party’s annual conference at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

 

Unionism has a name for not-an-inch politics, but at the weekend the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt, with the co-operation of his SDLP counterpart Colum Eastwood, advanced Northern Ireland politics a few inches forward.

It may have passed the notice of some people, but Stormont now has a formal opposition in the form of the UUP and the SDLP.

It hasn’t got much traction so far, but Nesbitt and Eastwood engaged in a double-act at the UUP annual conference on Saturday to try to impress the idea in the consciousness of middle-ground unionism and nationalism.

The idea of Nesbitt and Eastwood usurping the power of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness any time in the near future is, of course, far-fetched, but the two leaders are working on the notion that “Marlene”, as the UUP leader called them, can’t go on forever.

If the UUP and the SDLP are to reclaim some of the ground lost to the DUP and Sinn Féin, then it is going to be a slow project, as Nesbitt and Eastwood must realise.

However, on Saturday they made a start, by proposing greater co-operation between their two parties and by putting into the people’s minds a possible alternative to DUP-Sinn Féin.

“Vote me, you get Colum. Vote Colum, you get me,” Mr Nesbitt told his party.

To reinforce that point, Mr Eastwood was invited to speak to the conference a short time before Mr Nesbitt delivered his keynote address.

Mr Eastwood joked that unionists probably never expected to hear a nationalist “bearded leader” talking to them from the conference rostrum, adding that in a few years’ time, “Gerry Adams will be telling everybody it was him that was here”.

Mr Eastwood has a warm way with him and the unionist delegates took to him from the start, even if they were more muted when he spoke about his desire for a “new Ireland”.

Still, it is an alliance that has the potential to attract the middle-ground unionist and nationalist audience.

Mr Eastwood told the conference that his nationalism and the UUP’s leader’s unionism “will not seamlessly fit any time soon”, something which was echoed in Mr Nesbitt’s speech.

However, he got strong applause when he added: “This difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause.

“Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow.”

Centre-ground politics

In a strong speech that occasionally seemed over the heads of some audience members, Mr Nesbitt majored on the need for centre-ground politics.

He raised the idea of a more formal “partnership” between the UUP and SDLP through, for example, the setting up by the parties of a shadow Northern Executive to mark the DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers.

He told Ulster Unionists that “identity can no longer be defined in the narrow, binary terms of unionist or nationalist, Orange or Green, Protestant or Catholic”, and that the concentration must be on “post-sectarian” politics.

Mr Eastwood was wise to note that the thought of a new form of centrist politics will trigger “predictable cynicism” from many quarters.

The pair of them must keep faith that at some stage there will be a turn in the road, because that is the way of politics.

The fixed impediment to date has been the binary nature of Northern politics that has served the DUP and Sinn Féin so well.

During elections, voters hear calls that if you vote Ulster Unionist rather than for the DUP you might get Martin McGuinness as First Minister, and if you vote for the SDLP rather than Sinn Féin McGuinness may not get the First Minister job.

Mr Nesbitt and Mr Eastwood have at least bolstered the idea that there is an alternative to Marlene.

Now, they have to put in the hard yards to get the concept across to the public: something which has been the failing of the UUP and SDLP in the past.